Pain. Everything hurt, but it didn't nearly feel as bad as waking up for the first time during the Lazarus Project. Several places hurt more than others though. It felt as if there was a fire raging inside his chest while his limbs were encased in ice.
Dimly, Shepard heard voices and forced his eyes open to look around. Bright lights assaulted him, causing his eyes to water. A woman's voice, cultured, with a sensual accent; he knew that voice well… "There. On the monitor. Something's wrong."
Miranda? Wait… wrong? What the hell is going on?
Another voice, male. He was speaking rapidly, almost to the point where Shepard's foggy mind couldn't keep up. "Brain waves show… incre… in act… Apparently waking u…"
Shepard's eyes adjusted to the bright lights around him, but the rest of his body seemed unresponsive. Turning his head, he heard another female voice speaking now. "Incredible. I still can't believe how he's able to fight off the sedatives."
Looking to his left, he saw a figure dressed in white with black sleeves. Everything was blurry, but Miranda's long black hair was easily identified. Turning to his right, he saw Chakwas and Mordin working nearby at some terminals.
Miranda walked up to his side. "Can we risk another dose?"
"Inadvisable. Chances of respiratory arrest too great," Mordin argued.
"Look at the EEG. The pain must be what's bringing him around," Chakwas said.
"Local anesthetic at affected sites perhaps?" Mordin recommended. "Dull pain to allow mind to relax?"
Shepard looked back to his left to see Miranda again. She bent down over him as he tried to reach out to her.
"Shepard, please – Don't try to move," she commanded softly.
Shepard could hear his heart beating rapidly. He could feel his breath becoming faster causing flaring pains in his chest. This only caused his heart to beat in faster in response, so much that it almost reverberated in his ears. Miranda grabbed his outstretched arm and gently, but forcefully placed it back on the table.
"You're in the Normandy's Medical Bay. You're safe. Just let us take care of you, okay?" she implored.
Her soothing voice compelled him to obey and he stopped resisting. His eyes started feeling extremely heavy. He could feel his heart slowing down from is earlier painful staccato and his breathing became steady and deep.
"Anesthetic administered," Mordin informed.
"Stats are falling to normal range and EEG shows standard delta waves," Chakwas reported. Her blurry face hovered over him. "Just sleep, Shepard. We'll take good care of you."
The world started to feel distorted; light began fading in and out. Shepard's head lolled to the left. Miranda's face filled his vision again as she stepped closer to look down at him. She looked like she was smiling.
"Should we continue procedure?" Mordin asked.
At his question, Miranda looked up and nodded. "He trusts us. He'll behave now."
"It would be a first," Chakwas commented with a hint of exasperation. Her voice sounded distant now, faint.
He could barely understand what anyone was saying. Everything sounded like a myriad of low and high pitches now.
Turning once more toward him, Shepard could swear Miranda was smiling again, just for him. "Don't worry, John. When you wake up, everything will be fine. I promise. Just rest."
"And I always keep my promises."
Shepard dimly remembered that she said that… sometime ago…
His eyes closed and the darkness claimed him.
"Are you absolutely certain, Captain?"
Elena Dawn nodded. "Yes, sir. It took some doing, but we managed to get some accurate scans of the science vessel. Two of our drones practically got within shouting distance. So far, none of the scans revealed any life signs aboard. If anyone is alive, the only place they could be is inside the site itself and we don't have the capabilities to—"
"I understand, Captain," the Illusive Man smoothly interrupted. "Your current orders stand. Long-range reconnaissance. Do not approach the site."
"Very well, Captain. Keep me apprised of the situation." Shutting down the link, the Illusive Man reined in his irritation and took another smoke. His mind considered all the angles, possibilities, options, and ramifications.
As much as he hated to admit it, even to himself, the choices he had left were limited and unfavorable. Compounded by the timetable of the Collector's ever-growing threat, he knew he had to reveal his hand no matter how unwilling he felt.
Shepard would get the job done, that much was certain. What he disliked was the idea of not knowing what other consequences would follow if he revealed the location of the derelict Reaper, but circumstances seemed determined to conspire against him.
Opening the latest in Dawn's reports, he looked through everything with a critical eye. As determined as he was to get results, he hoped to find or discover an answer that was safer than involving Shepard.
As much as he respected the Spectre's abilities, there were always going to be unknown variables and quandaries when dealing with him.
And the Illusive Man despised surprises.
Location: Omega Nebula / Sahrabarik System / Sahrabarik Fueling Station / Normandy SR-2
A small, but insistent stabbing pain roused Shepard from his sleep. Groaning to himself, he reliantly opened his eyes looked around. The lights were dimmed, but he was able to make out the familiar objects and colors around him.
He shifted a bit, wincing as he did so, and lifted his head to look around the Med Bay of the Normandy.
Mordin was asleep at Chakwas' table. The terminal was still on, providing the only faint illumination in the darkened room. In the third bed over, Chakwas had occupied it, though she was sleeping on top of the covers and still in full uniform.
A weight was preventing his left arm from moving. Looking down, he spotted Miranda's head resting on his flank, her hand encased in his. He gave it a gentle squeeze.
Her eyes fluttered open and she lifted her head up, wincing slightly as she did so.
"You okay?" he rasped out. His throat felt like it cracked and splintered with the effort of breathing, much less talking.
Her eyes were the only indication that looked like she was surprised at his question before chuckling quietly. "Maybe."
He managed a small smile for her. "Maybe?"
"I have a small crick in my back. Unfortunately, I have no medical evidence supporting that," she whispered. Sitting up straighter, she scooted her chair closer to his bed. "You, on the other hand, have detailed scans showing improvements all across the board. I think we can tentatively say that you're going to be okay."
At her news, he tried sitting up. "Scans… Wait, you mean my…?"
She placed a hand on his shoulder and forced him back down on the bed. "Mordin and Dr. Chakwas managed to synthesize enough of the drug that will halt the growth of your nodules. I found the prime locations for the implants that will deliver the drug at strict intervals. So far, everything looks good."
"I'm… You…" He paused for a moment to gather his thoughts and tried to remember what had happened. He also tried swallowing to wet his parched throat.
She read his mind and made herself a little bit more comfortable before explaining. "You and Samara were injured. She was still conscious and managed to call us. Jacob and I transported the both of you back to the Normandy. Samara is fine, but she lost a lot of blood, so she had to stay for a few days. She was free to go back to her room yesterday. As for you, a SMART Scan showed that your nodules grew a little more, most likely because you disobeyed orders and used your biotics again," she informed, though she sounded cross, worried, and exasperated all at same time. "We decided to start treatment immediately. You've been unconscious for a little over a week now."
"A week?" he repeated in surprise.
She nodded. "Nine days to be precise," she informed before getting up. She left the Med Bay momentarily only to return with two glasses of water for him. He drank both down greedily.
"Right now, we're docked at the local fueling station near the mass relay. Beyond that, we don't have a destination or course set yet."
"Thanks," Shepard said. "For… you know, saving my life. Again."
She gifted him with a brilliant smile.
Shepard growled softly to himself and clenched his fists tightly. Gritting his teeth in effort, he screwed his eyes shut and braced himself against the wall.
Pissing needles was something that should never be dragged out.
The nanites injected into him during his last SMART Scan were either stubborn and didn't want to leave, or were a form of torture he had to endure and overcome.
When everything, thankfully, was evacuated, he suited back up and left the restroom. It was early morning now, but a few crewmen were awake and eating breakfast. A few called out and greeted him as he passed by. He greeted each in turn. Trudging back to the Med Bay, he settled back into bed and balefully glared at the SMART Scanner.
"Now, now, Shepard. If you make faces, it'll stick that way," Chakwas chided teasingly.
"I'm cured now, right? I don't need to be in that thing anymore?" Shepard asked hopefully.
"You're not cured, you're improving," she corrected. "Cured will be when we've finally proven that your nodules have stopped growing. Unfortunately, that means…" She trailed off and vaguely gestured at the Smart Scanner, the newest bane of his existence.
Far from looking sympathetic, Chakwas looked like she was trying not to laugh.
His irritation at her expression was tempered by the fact that she managed to find his situation humorous. Especially when she used to look deadly serious about the course of treatment he had to undergo.
"So…" Chakwas shot him a mischievous look. "Something interesting going on between you and the executive officer?"
Shepard rolled his eyes. "I expect this kind of thing from Kasumi, Doc."
"That's not a no," Chakwas astutely pointed out. "You're usually quite evasive when you want to be, Shepard. Losing your touch?"
"That's because I don't want to lie to you outright," he said. "Want me to start now?"
"Forgive me," she said. Her smile, however, said that she wasn't sincere in her apology at all. "I would never dream of teasing my patients."
"Liar," Shepard accused, though his smile showed he wasn't serious.
Mordin finally looked up from a nearby terminal and blinked as if he finally noticed that Shepard had returned. "Shepard, all finished?"
"For now," he said, trying to keep civil. He had to remind himself that these were the people that saved his life. There was no reason to be petulant, especially when they're also injecting the evil microscopic devil machines that make urination an exercise in pain tolerance.
"Good," he said obligingly. "Wanted to talk. Medical matters."
Shepard stared at him curiously. What was surprising was that Chakwas appeared confused at his declaration as well.
"What?" she asked.
"No, no. Nothing to do with current condition. Something else entirely," Mordin assured before turning to Shepard. "Aware that mission is dangerous. Different species react differently to stress."
"Okay…" Shepard said, wondering where Mordin was going with this.
"Sexual activity common for humans in such times," Mordin stated.
Chakwas choked out a laugh which she quickly stifled and turned around to face her terminal. She didn't type anything though and her shoulders were shaking with repressed humor.
"Understand it intellectually," Mordin continued. He was tapping his chin and had his head tilted upward in thought, appearing blissfully unaware of Shepard's widening eyes. Shrugging to himself, he smiled at Shepard and said, "Recommend caution when dealing with Cerberus."
"Wha-what? H-hang on, wait, is this about Miranda?" Shepard stammered out. Mordin's topic of choice had derailed his train of thought. "I mean, she-I, we, um…"
"Of course, no explanation needed," Mordin said. He reached out and gave his patient a friendly pat on the shoulder. "Hormones, physical pursuits, gratification, emotional entanglement. All excellent distractions."
Chakwas' giggles got a touch louder.
The salarian leaned in closer and stage-whispered, "Just watch for bugs. Could be planted anywhere. Can perform exam later if necessary. Will need probes."
Shepard's horrified look was only compounded by how serious Mordin appeared. His mindset had gone well past distracted and was completely shutting down.
"Biotic ability also gives benefits," Mordin added. He activated his omni-tool and typed something on it. "Forwarding booklet to your quarters. Includes diagrams, exercises, inventive uses of mass effect fields. Of course, wouldn't recommend that you exercise biotics just yet, but soon."
Chakwas lost all control at this point and burst out laughing riotously.
"Can supply oils or ointments to reduce discomfort. Gave EDI relationship aid demonstration vids to use as necessary," he finished over Chakwas' mirth.
"Oils and ointments for what?"
Everyone turned around to see Miranda standing in the doorway, looking decidedly interested in the proceedings.
Her eyes saw the merriment in Chakwas' face, Shepard's shocked expression, and Mordin's serious countenance. "Well?" she asked expectantly.
Chakwas' smile became a touch evil. "Well, it's—"
"—nothing!" Shepard managed to shout out. "Mordin's just telling me to take it easy!"
She crossed her arms, her face clearly saying that she didn't believe him.
"Dr. Solus was just saying that Shepard should be careful with his biotics," Chakwas said in-between breaths. "Beyond that, he was just teasing our fearless captain here."
Mordin took a step back and put his hand on chest theatrically. "Shocking suggestion! Doctor-patient confidentiality a sacred trust! Would never dream," he paused only to grin, "of mockery."
Chakwas' renewed laugher was somehow contagious because Shepard's earlier annoyance at the nanites was quickly forgotten as he laughed as well. "Well-played, Mordin."
"Enjoy yourself while possible, Shepard. Will be in lab, studying cell reproduction," Mordin said. "Much simpler. Less alcohol and mood music required."
Miranda looked confused and curious at the odd topic. She cocked her head to the side and tried to figure out what she was missing out on. "Wait, what do you mean by mood music and alcohol? Why do you even need any of that?"
Chakwas' laughter returned with a vengeance. "The look on your faces!" she managed to gasp out.
Mordin tidied up his station and left the Med-Bay with a smile on his face.
Miranda turned toward Shepard and crossed her arms, her eyes clearly demanding an explanation. "What was that all about? And… are you blushing?"
Shepard had tried desperately to control the heat flooding to his face, but obviously failed miserably. "It's nothing. Mordin was just yanking me around."
"And succeeded, I might add," Chakwas said.
"Will someone tell me what's going on?"
Shepard shook his head and shrugged, hoping to feign ignorance.
To his mounting dread though, Chakwas directed a positively evil smile at him. "You're in luck, Executive Lawson, because I actually recorded the moment for posterity."
"What?" Shepard said. His voice an octave higher than usual baritone.
"You really didn't think I'd miss the once-in-a-lifetime chance to see you so off kilter and not record it, did you?" Chakwas rhetorically asked before tapped a button on her terminal with relish and letting Mordin's voice play out.
When it ended, Miranda's eyebrows had risen in surprise and her mouth fell open.
Shepard could only shrug helplessly when she turned toward him. "Hey, I was unconscious, remember? You can't blame me for anything."
He tried to ignore Chakwas' laughter and Miranda's narrowing eyes in response to his statement.
Over the course of the day, some of the crewmen and squad popped in to check on him. He assured them all that he was fine and would be up and about in no time. Tali and Garrus were probably the most relieved to hear that and took the time to thank Chakwas and Mordin for their efforts.
Even Joker stopped by for him. "I'm glad things worked out, Shepard, especially with that business on Omega. I was worried you'd dump Samara for some crazy soul-sucker with a death fetish, all lithe and sexy and… never mind."
Shepard raised an eyebrow. "How'd you hear about that?"
"Seems like that thing doesn't know about rhetorical questions. I'm in the cockpit, saying to myself: 'What the hell could be so damn important on Omega that Shepard and Samara nearly gets themselves killed?' And it answers: 'They are chasing an Ardat-Yakshi. According to Justicar Samara, an Ardat-Yakshi is an asari that kills through mating'," he explained, using a high-pitched voice to mimic EDI.
"Yeah, that sounds about right," Shepard agreed. He assumed Joker was referring to EDI when he said 'it'. "Real turn off, isn't it?"
Joker grinned back. "Well, Samara is all right. It's just… I feel like she could shoot me in a very tranquil manner, which doesn't make me feel any better about it. Still, you had to go and prove that there are still worse ways to die."
Come dinnertime, his insistent needling and prodding forced Chakwas to give up and let him leave. Whether or not he clear for active duty was still in the air however. Chakwas promised to have an answer by morning.
Returning to his cabin, he spotted Miranda sitting at his table and typing something at his terminal. At his entrance, she typed a few more things before turning it off. She stood up and faced him with an even look on her face.
"And what were you up to?" Shepard asked teasingly. "If you're checking my messages, I think I have one about a drell and the Enkindlers from… somewhere or other."
"Just chatting with Oriana while I was waiting for you," Miranda answered before looking at him from head-to-toe. "How are you feeling?"
"Good. Now," Shepard replied.
"Good," she said before taking on a cross look. "Don't ever worry me like that again."
Shepard grinned. "No promises."
She didn't look amused. "You were told not to use your biotics," she pointedly reminded.
Sensing the seriousness of her demeanor, he dropped the humor and shrugged. "Morinth or Mirala, or whatever her name was, didn't really give me a choice."
"So you decided to risk your life on the gamble that your biotics might have helped instead of making you a liability?" she asked angrily.
"She nearly killed us both," Shepard argued, now feeling a pang of annoyance. "I had to use what was on hand."
"Then might I suggest that instead of deigning to Samara's need for secrecy, you call for backup," Miranda responded heatedly. "I suspect that's the reason we're all together on this mission, isn't it? To put together a team strong enough to combat the Collectors."
"Like what I should have done for you and Oriana?" Shepard countered angrily.
His words must've struck a little close to him, because her eyes flashed dangerously.
He stood his ground though. Impossible situations, decisions, and conflicts had long since been a talent he honed.
"That was personal. Extremely personal," Miranda hissed.
"Oh, I agree," Shepard sardonically replied. "It hardly gets more personal when family is involved." When he said that, a thought struck him and he grimaced. "Which is why I think you shouldn't judge either Samara or me."
Miranda was caught off-guard and had to take a moment to recollect her thoughts. "She didn't mention anything—"
"Weren't you the one that didn't want anyone to know about Oriana? I've never whispered a word to anyone on board," Shepard said. "That said, I promised Samara that I'd keep her confidence. I'm not about to betray that. Even for you."
Having lost her footing in this argument, her visage became a touch frosty for just a moment before she gazed at the aquarium, unable to meet his eyes.
Shepard took a step closer to her. "What are you really getting at here? You're not mad because I used my biotics. I'm pretty sure you're not mad because my life was in danger since that comes with the territory…"
Breathing out a sigh, she turned back to face him. "I don't know. Maybe it's nothing. Maybe it's everything. This is why I dislike being in a relationship. Too many complications." She rubbed her head and looked like she was mustering her resolve before admitting defeat. "I suppose I made this more personal than it should've been. I wasn't thinking, not exactly anyway."
"You were bothered by something," Shepard pressed. "You can tell me."
"I find it interesting and frustrating how many secrets you have," Miranda said. "And you were right about Oriana and myself. It wasn't fair to put you on the spot like that."
Shepard moved to make sure she wouldn't try to leave. "I'm sure you have more than a few secrets of your own. I'm just asking why you seem so… anxious. Is it because of me or something else?"
She stared at him, searching for something before speaking. "That asari fugitive Samara was tracking, Morinth."
"Were you tempted? At any point at all?" Miranda asked.
He knew what she meant and was about to say no, almost automatically, when something tickled at the edge of his mind. He closed his mouth and frowned as he thought back to a very specific moment. "I-I, I think so."
"I… damn it." Shepard walked into the main area of his cabin and unceremoniously plopped onto one of the chairs.
Miranda followed, but remained standing. She kept watching him with an unreadable look. "What happened?" she asked.
"When Samara confronted Mirala, they fought for a bit until they reached a deadlock. The entire time, I just stood there, watching. Then, Mirala called out to me. She didn't know me, didn't know anything about me, except that I betrayed her and lured her out for Samara. But she called out to me to help her."
Miranda said nothing, but she was listening intently.
"And for a moment…" Shepard trailed off and closed his eyes before admitting painfully, "I was actually tempted. She wanted me to kill Samara and I was going to do it…"
"But I remembered the endgame. I refocused on the task at hand to avoid being distracted." He chuckled humorlessly. "Safe to say, I think you're the reason Samara is alive. And that I didn't…" He trailed off, unable to even finish the sentence, but not the thought.
She put her hand underneath his chin and gently pulled his head back up so he could look her in the eyes. "You didn't. That's all that matters."
"You're just saying that to make me feel better," he muttered good-naturedly.
"No, it's the truth," she said. "This is supposed to make you feel better: I'm sorry."
He looked confused. "What? Why?"
"For snapping at you." She pulled her hand away and ran it through her hair. Turning away from him she sat down on the armrest of the couch and scoffed at herself. "Relationships are complicated. In my head, I understood everything you did. But when I found you and Samara and you were just laying there, Samara's injuries, the state of the room… I don't know, something more emotional took over I guess."
"Yeah, feelings can be like that," Shepard agreed.
"I had talked to Samara at length on what happened. She was reluctant to divulge details of course, but we wanted to get a head-start on your condition before it worsened. When she heard that, she told us everything. Almost everything anyway."
"I can't blame her for wanting to keep this a secret."
Miranda shook her head. "Nor I. I suppose I was being a bit hypocritical about her situation, but I almost assumed the worst when I saw you."
She shook her head and moved to sit down on his lap. "I probably should've known better though. Survival against certain death seems to a talent of yours."
One of her hands wandered over his shoulder and idly rubbed his back. It felt pleasant right until there was a sudden stab of pain. He tried to hold back his wince, but judging from her concerned gaze, he didn't hide it well enough. "I'm fine."
She reached around and poked him in the back. "Here?"
He exhaled sharply. "Ah… yeah."
"That's where we put one of the implants," she said with a sigh. "You'll be feeling a bit of pain and soreness for another few days, I'm sorry to say."
"I'll survive. I'm good at that," Shepard reminded jokingly.
"I believe you," Miranda indulgently said. She got off his lap and pulled him to his feet. "I believe I owe you a massage, don't I? On the bed, face down if you please. And remove your shirt."
Shepard couldn't help but grin and did as he was told. Once he was comfortable, he closed his eyes in bliss as Miranda placed her hands on his back and started rubbing at all the trouble spots.
He remembered not long after helping Kasumi with her heist, he gave Miranda similar treatment after her own injury from an explosion and subsequent collision with a metal crate. In the next morning, she showed her appreciation, much to both of their satisfactions.
Fighting the urge to sleep from her ministrations, he subtly shifted body to allow her to get the maximum effect and breathed out softly. Despite his training to resist interrogation, he had to admit that at this moment, he'd be willing to talk about anything.
Forget pain. Pleasure is way more evil.
"Can I ask you something?" he mumbled drowsily.
"How'd Chakwas and Mordin know about our relationship?"
"Deduction most likely. And I wasn't exactly being subtle when I was holding your hand most of the week. I don't think the rest of the crew knows, but I'm sure it will be a matter of time," Miranda answered.
"It had to happen at some point," Shepard commented.
"I know, but I'd rather have it happen later than sooner."
"You and me both. You think Chakwas and Mordin will keep quiet?" Shepard asked before exhaling sharply again.
Miranda rubbed at another trouble spot as she answered. "I'm sure. Mordin doesn't really interact with the rest of the crew and Dr. Chakwas knows how to keep a secret."
Shepard nodded and allowed himself to indulge in his pampering when a thought struck him that banished his tiredness. "Have you spoken to the Illusive Man?"
"About your condition? I told you—"
"No, no," he said. He turned his head to better look at her. "About the IFF? We've been waiting for a while now. Why haven't we gotten word about it yet? Even if there's been a delay, he should've sent either of us a message about it."
She stopped massaging and considered his question. "You're right. It is strange that we haven't heard about the status of the IFF yet. I've sent daily reports to him, but only generalities. Why we're at certain places, supply pickups, or just assurances that everything is going well. He usually doesn't bother sending messages unless it's urgent."
"Or if he wants to keep a secret," Shepard added.
"We need that IFF for the success of the mission. There's a difference between a suicide mission and just plain suicide. The Illusive Man knows this," Miranda said.
"I believe you, but all he told either of us is that he's securing a Reaper IFF. He didn't say where or how," Shepard reminded. "If another cell is involved—"
"—then it would necessitate a division of knowledge," she finished. "You've made your point. I'll contact him first thing tomorrow and see if I can't get any details."
The next morning, Shepard forced himself out of bed and away from any further temptations. Letting Miranda sleep, he quickly did his usual morning routines before heading toward the Crew Deck and the Starboard Observatory Lounge. It was a talk long overdue, but circumstances obviously delayed it.
Probably for the best. Better to give her space and time to think about everything.
Upon entering, he saw Samara was sitting cross-legged in the middle of the room, meditating as usual. Her aura of dark energy flared briefly as she left her trance to stand up and greet him.
"Shepard. Are you well?"
"Better than before as I understand it. Mordin and Chakwas are going over my latest test results to make sure the drug is working the way it should be working. So far, my nodules have stopped growing, but it doesn't mean I'm cleared to use my biotics yet, either." He shrugged. "For now, I'm alright. What about you, though?"
Samara didn't answer immediately. She turned around and faced the window, staring out at the stars beyond. "Physically, I've recovered. Dr. Chakwas has informed me that I am cleared for active duty now."
"That's not what I meant."
"Mirala haunted my dreams and waking hours equally," Samara whispered, so much that Shepard had to strain to hear her. "For the first time in 400 years, I am free. I am a ruined vessel of sorrow and regret, but I am free." She turned around and faced him with ageless eyes. "It is not a feeling I can describe."
"Not at all? I mean, you did your duty," Shepard pointed out.
"One of my daughters is dead," Samara sadly replied. "My hopes, my dreams, everything I am were all bound up in my children." She locked gazes with him once again. "Still, my feelings have always come after my duty. The same is true of you."
He didn't argue against her on that. "And your daughter?"
He was surprised to see a small, maternal smile on Samara's lips at his question. "She was the strongest and the smartest. She would not accept the injustice thrust upon her. She fought to the end." Her expression fell and become sorrowful when she confessed, "I am so proud of her, Shepard."
Now he found himself confused. Either it was asari culture or a maternal instinct he would never comprehend. "Really?"
"But you still killed her."
"And I would again," Samara resolutely stated. "But I also know what it means to leave everything behind and fight."
A small pang, more like a sting, struck Shepard when she said that. His thoughts turned to Ash, the Alliance, and his career, before he banished it all to focus on the now.
Samara didn't notice his wandering thoughts. Instead, she was looking out at the window. Part of the fueling station could be seen, but the stars still dominated the view. "I do not think I have told you this, but Mirala ran at the age of 40. I do not know human years well, but it is very young for an asari."
"Liara once told me she was only 106 years old… two years ago I mean," Shepard said. "Apparently, you're still a child in asari culture until you're a century or so years old, so I can imagine. Just tell me: Was it all worth it?"
"It was never a question of worth, but of need," Samara corrected. "I had to take the action I did. As did she. This was never a story that would have a happy outcome."
Shepard nodded and idly rubbed one of his sore spots. "What will you do now that Mor-Mirala is gone? I mean, after my mission?"
She turned back around and faced him. Again, he found himself under the scrutiny of her powerful gaze. "Assuming we survive? I am a justicar and injustice still exists… and perhaps even other Ardat-Yakshi," she said.
"I thought Ardat-Yakshi were extremely rare?"
"Asari have spread to many worlds. There are remote regions with no government oversight, much like your human colonies in the Terminus Systems," she said calmly. "If I travel to those worlds and they do exist, I will find them."
"There was something Mirala said during the fight… she claimed that her condition was the future of the asari race," Shepard said carefully.
"Mirala would say anything that served her cause. You know this now," Samara said. "Ardat-Yakshi are sterile. That wouldn't be a particularly viable future for my people."
"So after all this, you don't want to settle down?"
To his surprise, Samara had a faint smile on her lips. "I did. I returned to my homeworld and tried to start a family."
"—again? No. I will fight and struggle all my life. That is my fate."
Again, she smiled, but this lacked any feeling behind it. He was sure it for his benefit.
"When I die, it will not be in bed. I have chosen this path and I am at peace with that," she stated serenely. "Due in no small part to you."
"Now, if I might say something?" she suddenly asked.
"What is it?"
"Your Singularity, it was quite impressive. Especially given the duress you must have been under," she praised.
Shepard rubbed the back of his neck. "I'm not entirely sure how I did it, either."
"It is interesting what strength we may find when we need it most, is it not?" Samara commented thoughtfully.
"About that," he said. He hesitated a bit, but long enough for her to pick up on his thoughts.
"Mirala has had centuries to perfect her technique, but it is heartening to know you were able to fight her influence," Samara said knowingly.
"I'm sorry if I—"
She held up a hand. "What's done is now done and I hold nothing against you, Shepard." This time, her smile was genuine. "In fact, I am feeling rather proud of you right now, more so than my daughter. You have been a most excellent student."
Shepard smiled under the rare praise. "Thanks."
She looked thoughtful about something now as she studied him. He got the feeling that she was measuring him for something or other. "I wonder…"
She shook her head and walked back to her place on the floor. Sitting back down again, Samara said, "No matter. For your assistance, I promise to have no further distractions. Your mission is now mine."
Shepard cocked his head to side, curious as to what she wanted to say, but she had begun her meditations again. Seeing that the conversation was over, he shrugged to himself and left.
"Ah, Shepard," Thane greeted.
"Hey, Thane," Shepard said as left Samara's room.
"I trust you are well?"
Thane nodded. "I was wondering if I might have a moment of your time? If you are feeling up to it, of course."
"Nothing important. I simply need a distraction or inspiration. I'm hoping you can provide both."
Shepard shrugged. "Sure. I have no plans right now."
They walked the short distance to the Life Support Plant. Once inside, Thane took a seat at his table and invited Shepard to sit as well.
"So how's everything going with Kolyat? We haven't had much time to talk after the Citadel," Shepard said conversationally.
"It is difficult. All things worth keeping are. In truth, I was composing another message to him. Of late, however, I wonder if I am becoming too personal, or not enough," Thane answered. "I thought it best to take a step back and review."
"Guess your recall can't help you there, huh?"
"Remembering things and understanding them are two very different mindsets," Thane said. "While I remember exactly everything I've said to Kolyat, I do not know how it will be interpreted or how best to approach him."
"I'm not sure how I'll be able to help," Shepard said. He couldn't help but note the interesting contrast between Thane and Samara's problems and their approaches to their respective children.
"Lately, we've been talking about Kolyat's mother," Thane replied. "That's when I recalled our last conversation."
"Your wife, you mean?"
"I suppose the story of my wife's death took you by surprise."
"It sounded… you know, personal doesn't seem remotely like the right word," Shepard said. "I just figured that you'd talk when you were ready."
Thane smiled. "I appreciate your patience." He drummed his fingers on the table as he thought about how to approach the subject. "I kept my work clear of our home life. I assumed that would be enough to protect Irikah. That memory I mention before—"
"/Laser dot trembles on the target's skull. The smell of spice on the spring wind. Sunset eyes defiant in the scope/."
After dropping out of his episode, Thane continued. "That was Irikah. That was how I met her. She saw my targeting laser as she walked by and threw herself in the way."
"I guess she impressed you. That must've left quite an impression," Shepard commented.
"She woke me up," Thane said.
"/Her body trembles. Not fear. Indignation. Her mouth moves. 'How dare you? /'"
Shepard leaned forward and paid close attention.
"You and I trained ourselves to save others. How often does a civilian step in the way of a bullet to protect someone they've never met?" Thane rhetorically asked. He smiled in remembrance. "I thought she was the goddess Arashu. She met my eyes through the scope and my purpose faltered."
"So how did she go from blocking your shot to having your children?" Shepard asked interestedly. "It's a huge leap."
"I had to meet her. The memory possessed and endowed me, more so than any other I had," Thane said. "I fell on my knees before her. Begged her pardon. She introduced me to the world beyond my work. Eventually, she forgave me. Later she loved me."
"Have you thought about telling that story to Kolyat? He already knows a little about your life. Maybe you should tell him how everything changed for you. If your wife was able to forgive you and be with you, perhaps he might be inclined to follow her example just as much as he followed yours," Shepard suggested.
Thane cocked his head to the side before smiling again. "Hmm… I hadn't thought of that. I was right. You would be able to provide a distraction and inspiration all at once."
"About your wife, you mentioned that she died," Shepard said carefully. "Can I ask…?"
Thane's smile fell and he bowed his head. "I let myself become complacent," he admitted painfully. "I thought Irikah and Kolyat were safe. I stayed away too long and my enemies came for her."
"Who came for her?"
"Batarians. A slaver ring that was preying on hanar outer colonies. I'd killed their leaders," Thane answered. "They paid the Shadow Broker to find out who I was. But they were afraid of me, so they went after her."
"So you hunted the people responsible," Shepard said.
"Irikah woke me up. When she passed, I returned to my battle sleep," Thane revealed. "My body hunted her killers. Murdered them."
"Murder? Not assassinate?"
"I was taught to grant death quickly, cleanly. To minimize suffering. Them—I let them linger," he whispered.
The question almost left his lips, but at the last moment, Shepard realized that he probably didn't want to know the details. "Is that why you felt like you needed to repent? For avenging your wife's death?"
"I made the choice to hunt them. They're the only lives I've ever taken of my own choice. The only deaths on my own conscience," Thane explained.
"The ones you… tortured."
"I'm sorry for bringing all this up," Shepard genuinely said.
"No, it's fine," Thane said before sitting up and looking thoughtful. "I haven't spoken about my wife in – I don't think I ever have. I didn't have anyone left to tell it to. Certainly not with Kolyat. I don't want him to remember his mother that way."
"You do now," Shepard said. "You're part of my crew and I consider you a friend. If there's anything I can help you with, just ask."
"I've never been part of a team," Thane admitted. "Assassins tend to be solitary. But now, I'm learning the virtues of facing death with others at your side." He smiled. "It's a work in progress."
"Much like your message," Shepard said. "I'll let you get back to it."
Leaving Thane to his thoughts, Shepard walked out of the Life Support Plant and back into the Common Area. On way in, he almost bumped head-long into Tali and Kasumi.
"Oops," Kasumi said. She was quick enough to grab Tali and side-step for the both of them to avoid collision.
"Sorry, Shepard," Tali said after steadying herself.
"No problem," Shepard said. He looked at both women noticed that their clothes were more than a little greasy. "Um…"
"Garrus got hurt fixing the bay doors. The passageway is really small and I needed Gabby to watch the diagnostics and radio the information to me. So I asked Kasumi to give me a hand."
Kasumi hefted a small bag that contained her toiletries. "I'm on the way to the showers. Later."
Tali waved and walked to the Med Bay. Shepard followed and saw Chakwas fussing over Garrus' hand.
"There. You'll be fine a few hours. Just keep the bandage clean and let the medi-gel work," Chakwas ordered.
"Thanks," Garrus muttered. He flexed his left hand a bit to let it breathe through the wrappings.
"I fixed the problem. The cannon's working now," Tali said to both men. She kept staring at Garrus though. "You owe me though. Next time, just ask."
Garrus grumbled something back. Either he said, "Thanks," or something less polite.
"You okay?" Shepard asked.
"Just fine. Cut my hand, that's all," Garrus replied.
"I heard you tried to fit into a size 4 shaft. Big mistake considering you're about a size 10," Shepard said with smirk.
"Oh, shut up."
"You really are quite the renegade, aren't you?"
Shepard turned around to see Miranda standing in the doorway.
"You do realize you're addressing a superior officer?" she asked. The seriousness of her voice was offset by the smile she had.
"Shepard will cut me some slack. I got hurt trying to fix the cannon," Garrus said confidently.
"The cannon that I fixed," Tali pointedly reminded.
"As important as this argument is," Miranda calmly interjected before they could continue. "Shepard? The Illusive Man wants to talk to you."
"Illusive Man. It's been awhile. You don't call, you don't write… If I didn't know any better, I'd think you were avoiding me. That hurts."
The Illusive Man's artificial eyes narrowed dangerously. "This isn't the time for levity, Shepard. The situation is serious."
Shepard wasn't fazed. He crossed his arms belligerently and stared right back. "I'm sure it is. That's the only reason you'd be calling me about anything, especially why you have or don't have the IFF ready for me. If I had to hazard a guess, something went wrong with the retrieval or the delivery. What? No one read the 'fragile', 'top secret', and 'extremely dangerous' labels?"
He took a small victory when he saw that the Illusive Man's jaw tighten ever so slightly before schooling his features again.
"There was science team assigned with retrieving the IFF," the Illusive Man said, pushing the conversation forward.
"And you've heard nothing or something from them," Shepard guessed. "Usually, you send a team or a couple of very talented agents to retrieve something dangerous. For something this mission critical, you might've sent me and my team instead. A science team means dedicated research at some top secret site you've found or base you've established and you don't want me to know about it, which explains the delay in this call. It's been my experience that screwing around with Reaper artifacts is never a good idea," he said. "So either you've lost contact and you have no idea why or you do know why and you haven't been able to fix it. Whatever it is, you and I both know you'd rather avoid this song and dance."
Once again, Shepard was sure he hit the nail on the head. The Illusive Man took a quick smoke, but it lacked his usual flair. The full three dimensional holographic surroundings of their unique communications made it easy to perceive the details of their interactions. It was fancy, but there were always drawbacks to face-to-face meets.
The silence dragged on. Shepard assumed it was a ploy from the Cerberus CEO to get him to play his game and back off. The Spectre wasn't interested on abiding by his terms anymore. "Are we finished yet?"
"Are we going to have a civil conversation," the Illusive Man said with a hint of steel. It wasn't a question.
Shepard scoffed and turned around. "Call me when you're ready to talk. Until then, get me that IFF. If you can."
The bluff worked. Before he could step outside the boundaries of the cylindrical scanners, the Illusive Man dropped his bombshell.
"The science team was working on a derelict Reaper."
Shepard stopped in his tracks and turned around slowly, his mind whirling at the possibilities. "A derelict Reaper?"
No doubt it was a question the Illusive Man hoped he wouldn't have to answer, but this time, Shepard had the advantage. He fully faced the enigmatic figure and stonily gazed down at him.
The Illusive Man picked up a tumbler and took a sip before speaking. "An Alliance science team recently determined that the 'Great Rift' on the planet Klendagon is actually an impact crater from a mass accelerator weapon." He paused again to finish his drink and place it down before taking a smoke.
Shepard waited patiently. It was just another ploy to get him to lose his cool at the constant interruptions. Unfortunately, it also meant that his 'benefactor' wanted to keep him in the dark as long as possible, if not entirely.
"A very old mass accelerator," the Illusive Man finally continued as if he hadn't stopped talking. "I sent a team to find either the weapon or its target. They found both."
"The weapons was defunct, but it helped us plot the flight path of the intended target – a 37 million year old derelict Reaper. We found it damaged and trapped in the gravity of a brown dwarf."
Shepard had to wonder how much of what the Illusive Man was saying was the truth, including the supposed 'defunct weapon'. Still… "37 million years old," he repeated thoughtfully.
"Well before the Protheans," the Illusive Man confirmed.
"I saw what Sovereign did to the Citadel fleet. Hard to imagine a mass accelerator capable of stopping something that powerful."
The Illusive Man tapped his cigarette into his ashtray. "This vessel is a relic from a battle waged when mammals took their first steps on earth," he said. "There's no trace of the species that took the shot, not surprising since they were probably all harvested like countless others. Is it so surprising that a species would choose to make one last stand? A moment of defiance before being wiped out?"
Shepard knew he was referring to humanity and conceded the point. "And the location? Aren't brown dwarfs basically stars that didn't quite make it?" he asked.
"Simply put, but accurate. They're gas giants that don't quite have the masses of stars. Expect gale-force winds and extremely high temperatures," the Illusive Man cautioned. "The Reaper has a mass effect field that keeps it in orbit. Likely an automated response to the external threats. It's stable, but I won't call it safe."
"Especially when you lose contact with everyone inside," Shepard said evenly.
The Illusive Man said nothing in response. He brought his cigarette to his lips, took a slow drag, and exhaled a thin cloud. His gaze never wavered.
Shepard crossed his arms and considered the information he was given. "How many teams did you send before you called me?"
"None whatsoever," the Illusive Man said promptly.
Shepard didn't believe him, but there was little reason to call him on it. "So you know nothing?"
"I was in contact with Dr. Chandana, the science team leader, right up until he stopped sending messages. I had instructed him to retrieve the IFF not long after your assault on the Collector ship. His last message stated that he was close to finding and securing it. More than that, I can't say."
"Speaking of that particular mission, the only reason I believe you is because I think you're smart enough to come up with something new or original rather than to fall back on repeat performances," Shepard said. Despite the conversational tone he used, his eyes clearly said, "If this is another trap…"
"It's no less a risk, Shepard. We haven't been able to restore communications and we have no idea what happened," the Illusive Man said and confirming Shepard's earlier suspicions. He took another smoke. "Initial reconnaissance revealed no clues, only verifications of what we already knew. It was too risky to commit more resources, but now we need that IFF."
"Send the coordinates. We'll make our way there now."
He tapped a command on the holo-terminal at his chair. "Done."
With that, the connection was terminated as well.
Location: Omega Nebula / Sahrabarik System / Sahrabarik Fueling Station / Normandy SR-2
With his head down in thought, he walked out of the room. His feet felt like they were carrying him to the CIC automatically. Shepard was so lost in thought that he actually walked right by Miranda, who was standing out in the hallway waiting for him.
She reached out and lightly grabbed his arm. The physical contact was enough to jar him out of his thoughts. "Shepard?"
"Miranda," he said distractedly. "We have a mission."
"We're getting the IFF?" she queried.
He nodded. "From a Reaper of all things."
She sucked in a breath. "A Reaper? An actual Reaper?"
"Derelict, a wreckage now," he confirmed. "37 million years old."
He could see that she was thinking the exact same things he was. The possibilities were enormous. However, he also knew the risks which weighed on his mind far more than the information. "The Illusive Man had a science team stationed there. They were studying it, but now they've gone missing."
His news brought a frown to her face. "Any explanation as to why?"
Shepard shook his head. "They just vanished. Now we're going in."
"A missing science team on a derelict Reaper… hardly a coincidence. Unfortunately, without knowing what happened to them, we're taking a significant risk of falling prey to the same circumstances," she cautioned.
"Then we'll have to be extra careful, won't we?"
"I really don't like this," Miranda replied with a shake of her head.
"Then you're obviously smarter than whoever the Illusive Man sent," Shepard said. "What we could learn about the Reapers is enormous, but we thought the same thing about the Collector ship and look what happened."
"I do recall some of those events. Didn't I save your life then too?" she asked 'innocently'.
Shepard rolled his eyes and made his way to the CIC. "I do believe you did. Thank you."
"You're quite welcome."
They entered the CIC and walked up to the Galaxy Map. Highlighted in red was the destination the Illusive Man had forwarded to them. Shepard reached out and tapped it, prompting Joker begin preparations to debark from the fueling station and set the course.
"Aye, aye, Captain. Coordinates locked. Hawking Eta Cluster, Thorne System, Mnemosyne. ETA: 10 hrs."
"Do you think it's a trap?" Miranda asked, serious once more.
Shepard shook his head. "I don't know. It's supposed to be dead, but… with the Reapers, who knows?"
Not really much to say this time. Interestingly enough, when I was writing Thane's scene, it eerily reminded me of how I was trying to type up this fic.